Public Funding and Public Education During COVID-19

Public Funding and Public Education During COVID-19

By Robert M. Scott

All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views  and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser. 

How should South Carolina pay for educating our children? Most of us recognize the need to support public education with public funding – tax dollars, raised through local property tax and state taxes of various kinds, with the so-called “Education Lottery” thrown in. There has been a discussion going on for years, though, as to whether we should use such funding to pay at least part of the cost of private education for some of our children. “The funding should follow the child,” say some. “School choice brings the benefit of competition to all our schools,” say others. As one who has only attended public schools from kindergarten through a graduate degree, I have never found such arguments to be persuasive. A metaphor recently published on the topic asked, is it the responsibility of taxpayers to pay for security companies to patrol private communities that don’t like their local police force, or to fund burglar alarm systems for individuals who want extra protection? The questions answer themselves.

There are many who argue that since South Carolina by law requires that we spend $3164 per pupil in base student costs, it would make no fiscal difference whether that is spent in public or private schools. (That figure is accurate, by the way, although in most years the Legislature has funded far less per pupil, falling short by $675 this year.) But few would argue that the government should allocate, per pupil, more for private education than for public education. Yet that is exactly what Governor McMaster has done, with COVID-19 federal funds.

Here is a summary. The state was given a $48 million in federal education funding during the pandemic, with very little guidance provided to the Governor by our state legislature. The plan he put together allocated a little over $2.4 million to historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) in the state. It also allocated $32 million in “tuition grants” to help 5,000 students obtain private education, enabling them to be part of the 50,000 students attending South Carolina private schools. The rest of the funding, under $14 million, went to help the 750,000 students attending South Carolina public schools. That works out to be about $640 per pupil attending private schools and about $20 per pupil attending public schools. The imbalance was so great that a judge temporarily blocked the program last week, but the Governor will likely win in court; as the Charleston Post and Couriernoted in its report, the fact that something is a bad idea doesn’t make it unconstitutional.

We should all support educating our children; they are indeed our future. The Edgefield County legislative delegation will have many things to do when they reconvene in September, but a review of Governor McMaster’s actions in spending emergency federal education funding should be high on their list. Whether or not our legislators find the option of supporting private education with public money to be compelling, there is no good reason to support private education at a higher per-pupil rate than public education.